intriguing illustrations and authors’ imaginings: Mysteries of Harris Burdick redux


Twenty-five years ago, Chris van Allsburg came out with The Mysteries of Harris Burdick which purports to be fourteen mysterious illustrations left with a (fictitious) publisher of children’s books. Each illustration was ostensibly part of a longer work, but van Allsburg’s work was only a collection of the illustrations themselves and an intriguing caption, intended to pique the readers’ imaginations. Well, it piqued a number of authors’ imaginations too. Now there’s a 25th anniversary edition, The Chronicles of Harris Burdick which contains fourteen tales, one for each illustration, written by an impressive collection of fantasy (science fiction, horror) authors ranging from Stephen King and Jules Feiffer to Louis Sachar and Jon Szciezka.

Describing a collection of short stories by authors with such wildly divergent writing styles1 as are contained herein is virtually impossible, and probably wouldn’t make much sense to someone who wasn’t familiar with the original book in any case. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the stories were “uneven” in the sense of some being of higher quality than others–we’re talking a truncated who’s who of children’s literature and modern fantasy writers, and it’s a fair (and correct) assumption that the stories are all worth reading thereby. One’s a story about a boy with (I think) Down’s Syndrome who adores baseball, another describes a something or other come to live under the carpet which eventually grows in to a Dust Demon defeated only by grandmotherly maxims, another about a world being created for just one boy2, and so on. I’d describe the contributions as “disparate”, or as if some authors stuck more closely to what they could see in the picture and only what they could see in the picture, while others took the illustration as no more extensive than an inspiration.

This collection, despite being but one story (per illustration) of all the potential stories one might imagine for the “Harris Burdick” illustrations and captions, is a delight. Other writers’ imaginings will never replace what I and other readers came up with, however nebulously, but what these authors did come up with is worth the price of a hardcover. Some are modern fairy tales, some are science fiction, some fantasy, but all are worth reading. Overall, I’d say the collection would appeal most to grade school aged kids, with a stretch upwards to those already browsing in the YA collections, given the age/reading range appropriate for the contributors’ other works.

1look at the list of contributors, and you’ll see what I mean.
2oh, so that’s why our parents told us not to go past thus and such street…

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